Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


R. Stephen Berry
University of Chicago

R. Stephen Barry
R. Stephen Barry

R. Stephen Berry is James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago. His current research interests focus on structures, properties and dynamics of clusters and biopolymers. Dr. Berry is a graduate of Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1964, he was an instructor at the University of Michigan, and an assistant professor at Yale University. Dr. Berry is an accolades fellow with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences, and member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1997, he received the J. Heyrovsky Honorary Medal for Merit in the Chemical Sciences, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and in 1993 was honored with the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Senior Scientist Award.

How have the Internet and computing changed the way academics research and communicate in chemistry?

It’s a huge change in many different ways. The most obvious is with publications. Journals by and large are making their materials available on the Internet in a searchable fashion.

Also, it’s made science more international. It’s been a very international community for as long as I can remember. But now, I am constantly working with people in other countries by email. It’s as comfortable and easy to work with someone in Japan or Bulgaria, as it is to work with someone in Boston or even the University of Chicago. It’s done more than just make the work easier. It’s made it more of a close community of people who really know each other – not just strict, rigid, professional interaction. It seems to me that the scientific community today is the most international border-free community that the world has ever known.

So there’s more collaboration?

Absolutely. It means that you can work with people whose interaction with you will be the most productive. Right now, I’m about to send in a paper that was done by a visiting graduate student from England. I’ve also been working with scientists from Japan and did a book with a Russian and two Poles. The virtual communication has just become completely natural – an everyday, totally accepted practice now. And it doesn’t require that you get funding. It’s just taken for granted.

Do you see open access benefiting science?

I only see good. But I think we may need a new model for funding scientific communication. It’s absolutely critical that we keep scientific publishing adequately funded.

What are some of the challenges and changes to publishing in your field?

There are some publishers that have been slow to give easy access to their publications on the Internet. This is a suicidal course for publications. Some of them see putting it up on the Internet as a way of losing revenue. People that take that view miss the important point. The value and attraction of a publication depends on it being accessible to readers. Unless it is accessible, they will lose authors, readers and they’ll die. I don’t think it’s a matter of choice.

Also, there is an interesting range of attitudes in professional societies about allowing authors to distribute their own papers. There was an amusing controversy that I was involved with where the policy paper I co-authored advocated that scientists keep the copyrights for their materials rather than following the tradition of giving copyright to the journal – but the publisher was reluctant to allow us to keep the copyright to our paper.

The reality is that if journals keep copyrights and give authors licenses with full rights to distribute their papers, then the results are the same for the author and more convenient for the journal. But I would be very surprised if most scientists who publish are even aware if it is allowed to post a paper on their own websites or in an open archive.

Another ongoing argument is whether the traditional peer-review process is old fashioned – whether it should wither. But it’s not that simple. We don’t all have to do things the same way. People in the same field can do things differently. There is not a need for uniformity. The physics archive is an example of a model that doesn’t rely on formal, anonymous peer review. Readers send in comments and they get posted with the papers. That’s another kind of peer review, an open process. A paper can be revised and posted, keeping the earlier version in the archive. It’s a way to do it that may be cheaper and it’s more democratic but less protective against bad work. That’s the extreme of open publication.

What do you think of the proposals to require more open access to publicly funded research?

My own feeling is that the focus on research results supported by government funds or funds from nonprofit institutions is almost mandatory on the basis of why the research was supported as it was. The whole justification for such research is the public goods it produces. A public good is one that an economist defines as something whose value does not diminish with use. Scientific public goods are unusual in that their value increases with use. The more they’re used, the more valuable they become.

What this implies is that the only way that the funder of the research can achieve their goals is to do whatever it can to get results disseminated as widely as possible. Logic says that if the government agency funds research, it takes responsibility to get research published. The cost of publishing is far less than research itself. The funding agency should make available the funds required for publication and dissemination. The question is: What’s the best process to do this funding?What is needed is an economic study of what modes of funding have the lowest transaction cost and we should adopt thoseto guarantee that publication goes on.

What recent improvements or changes in this area are encouraging?

The pressure on those resisting some form of open access is getting greater and greater. The detailed questions of how a publisher will maintain their economic viability and still offer open access is a challenge publishers will simply have to come to terms with.

How has computing affected the way people carry out research in chemistry?

That’s a very big question, but I’ll try to give a short answer. It’s now commonplace for experimentalists, synthetic chemists, to use quantum chemistry programs regularly to predict or interpret results. Animations have, more and more, given us new insights into how atoms and molecules behave, insights we couldn’t have gotten from numerical data or even still pictures. Computation, which used to be almost a separate discipline from analytic theory, has become deeply integrated so the two, computation and analytic theory, are closely tied. We have reached a stage where finding a suitable algorithm to compute the answer to a class of problems is considered as much a solution to that class as an analytic solution. And sometimes it is more efficient to compute with the algorithm, e.g. to evaluate an integral numerically, than to compute the analytic expression for the solution to that integral!

How has the Internet affected the way you teach students – tomorrow’s chemists?

If I ask students to write an essay for a course, I expect them to use the web for resources. There is a wider use of source material now. I find some students do seem to learn the background material in a field faster and more broadly. The web has been a wonderful source for non-science students preparing papers for a physical science course, for example. However, something that I am not seeing that I expected with the search capabilities available is students referring to papers in the 1930s that were overlooked. Maybe if we put more emphasis on that, students would start doing digging back further.

Looking down the road a decade or so, what do you expect will be different when it comes to digital scholarship in your field?

What appears now as supplementary material will include more animations. More imaginative use of graphics will be available online, but not in paper form. That will encourage more real online use of the computer. With that, as we see the physical forms of computers evolve so they are lighter and easier to use like a book, you will see people using the computer rather than the print-out from the computer. As it is now, I prefer to print out and read the hard copy. As screens get better, and computers getlighter, and smaller and electronics are more efficient – such as the computer not getting hot as it sits in your lap – all those the kinds of things will make us use computers as primary sources.